Monday, July 20, 2015

Classical Careers and Economic Pressures

I just read a fascinating little item over at Slipped Disc: "Big Banker Shows Pluck for Classical Guitar." Norman writes:
Marcelo Kayath is head of Latin American Securities at Credit Suisse in Sao Paolo. That’s big in banking, we’re told.
UPDATE: He’s been promoted to managing director of Credit Suisse in Brazil.
Before he climbed behind a desk, Marcelo was Brazil’s bright hope on the classical guitar. He was pretty good, we hear.
To stay in touch with his past, and to promote the instrument’s future, Marcelo has now launched an online launchpad for new guitar talent – such as Naumburg winner Jorge Caballero – and international guitar events.
The thing is that I know Marcelo Kayath--I mean we aren't beer-drinking buddies or something, but I remember him very well from the Toronto guitar festival and competition way back in, I think it was 1978. For a few years the Toronto Guitar Society held some very successful festivals and competitions. I think the years were 1975 (when the winners of the competition were Sharon Isbin, first and Manuel Barrueco, second), 1978 when the winner was Marcelo Kayath, and, I think 1984. I don't remember who the winner was then, but I was possibly distracted because I was giving a solo recital as part of the festival.

In any case, in 1978 I followed the competition very closely. Marcelo Kayath wasn't my favorite of the finalists. I think that would probably have been David Tannenbaum whose repertoire I liked better. But Marcelo was a very fine player indeed: big, beautiful romantic sound and a near-impeccable technique. For the final round he did an outstanding and lyrical performance of the Concerto by Castelnuovo-Tedesco with orchestral accompaniment. He won the competition and soon after released a pretty darn good Cd. But, according to the Slipped Disc item, he gave up his career as an international classical guitar virtuoso for a career in banking--which he seems to be doing splendidly at.

I have a lot of familiarity with this sort of thing as I have experienced some of it myself. Notice something first of all: both of the finalists in the 1975 competition went on to big careers. I don't recall who else was a finalist, but I have the vague recollection that they had pretty good careers as well. But the finalists in the 1978 competition have not fared nearly as well. Marcelo Kayath has become a banker and David Tannenbaum had a very modest career. And I don't even remember who the finalists were in subsequent competitions. The winners of a similarly high-profile competition, the Guitar Foundation of America one, held annually, are also having careers of remarkable obscurity. Just to cite one example, the winner of the 1994 GFA competition, which I attended (I was giving a lecture on the Brouwer guitar concertos as part of the festival) was Margarita Escarpa, a Spanish guitarist who gave one of the most delightful and liquid performances of Bach I have ever heard. But she seems to be virtually unknown career-wise. She released an obscure recording of Fernando Sor on Naxos (that's one of the competition prizes) and teaches at an obscure Spanish conservatory.

I think something started trending in the late 1970s that has just gotten worse ever since. The earliest recitals I gave, in the mid-70s, were very well-attended, paid not bad and were not hard to organize. But as time went on, the attendance dropped, it got harder to find recital engagements and the pay didn't get any better. A very high-profile concert where I was the soloist with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra in a concert honoring Brazil with the Brazilian Consul in attendance in the biggest and best concert hall in Vancouver and that was recorded and broadcast nationwide paid, wait for it, $1300 CAN. I played the Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto and some of his solo music.

The solo recital has become an endangered species as two important trends collide: on the one hand, mass market pop music dominates the music business so much that classical musicians can barely earn a living, especially in the mass media which includes radio, television and the new streaming services. And on the other, people are much less inclined to attend live concerts when they can sit at home and listen to recordings.

For these reasons, even highly talented artists such as Marcelo Kayath or Margarita Escarpa or (blush) myself have two unattractive options: on the one hand, like Margarita, you can keep slogging away with the occasional concert and a whole lot of low-paying teaching. I did this for 30 years. Teaching music, much of the time, consists in being trapped in a small room for hours on end with people who have little or no musical talent, telling them over and over again that there are TWO beats in a half note. The alternative is that you give up your music career entirely and become a banker or some other profession that rewards intelligence and creativity instead of punishing it as the music business often seems to do.

The most talented student I had who was a high-school student when I taught him, never for a moment considered a career in classical music even though he had the ability. Instead he chose to study law.

Like Marcelo Kayath, the option I have chosen is to have a remunerative non-musical career, but one that allows me enough time to devote to composition, something I never had before.

But there are still a few super-stars like Hilary Hahn that undoubtedly could do something far more economically rewarding, but choose to do music and can earn, if not really large amounts of money like a mid-rank hip-hop artist, then at least a pretty decent living. I just hope that continues.

This is Hilary Hahn playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paao Järvi:


Christine Lacroix said...

My grandfather singlehandedly and honorably supported seven children, his wife and himself with a slide trombone during the first part of the last century. He played in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC where his relationship with the conductor, Hans Kindler, was miserable. He had to play any and every gig he could find on the side to make enough money to support his family. No financial or artistic freedom there. By the time he retired he was having issues with his mouth due to what we’d call these days repetitive stress syndrome. All this to say that when I see musicians like Lang Lang or David Garrett able to cash in on their celebrity to have fun and the freedom to do as they choose I say YES!!!! It’s just too sad that so many struggling artists of all kinds aren’t recognized or rewarded for their hard work and talent.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have had composers tell me that, despite advanced degrees and considerable talent, they see themselves as not being able to earn what their father did in an ordinary middle-class job.